KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee’s stunning season-opening 80-71 loss at Chattanooga seemed at the time like the worst possible introduction to the post-Pat Summitt era.
The Lady Vols now consider it the spark that set them on the right course. Ever since that disastrous debut, Tennessee has been an entirely different team.
The 20th-ranked Lady Vols (3-1) have followed that upset with three straight double-digit triumphs. Two of those wins came on the road against Georgia Tech and Miami, who both were ranked at the time. The other victory was a 101-48 pasting of Rice that resembled the dominant performances of Summitt’s best teams.
That streak gives Tennessee plenty of momentum heading into Sunday’s game with Alcorn State.
“Obviously we didn’t want to lose to Chatt,” sophomore forward Cierra Burdick said, “but I think it’s the best thing that could have happened to us.”
Burdick said the Nov. 9 loss to Chattanooga put things in perspective as the Lady Vols began this season of transition.
Summitt, who announced last year she has early-onset dementia, stepped down in April after collecting 1,098 wins, eight national titles and 18 Final Four appearances in her 38 seasons as Tennessee’s head coach. She remains on staff as head coach emeritus while assisting new coach Holly Warlick, who spent 27 seasons as Summitt’s assistant.
Tennessee began the season ranked 20th, its lowest position in the Top 25 since February 1985. Tennessee didn’t return a single player who started an NCAA tournament game last season. The Lady Vols provided more reason for concern by losing to Chattanooga, a team they had beaten 90-47 last season.
“I think we weren’t ready,” Warlick said. “We weren’t ready to defend a veteran team, a well-coached team. We weren’t as focused as we should be.”
Warlick took immediate steps to correct the problem.
Burdick joked that the team was “in jail” after the Chattanooga game.
The Lady Vols spent the next day watching film and preparing for Georgia Tech. They had no other choice, as they didn’t have much contact with the outside world. The coaching staff had the players’ phones and didn’t give them back until after Tennessee’s victory over Georgia Tech.
“Computers, cellphones, iPhones, iPods, everything was taken from us,” Burdick said. “We were left with nothing but our teammates and our staff. That’s it.”
Warlick said she took that step to make sure the team had the right frame of mind for its next game.
“We just thought it was a way to get them focused and get ready to play Georgia Tech after the way we’d played” against Chattanooga, Warlick said. “We always take their phones (before games). We just chose not to give them back.”
Two days after the Chattanooga game, Tennessee won 71-54 over a Georgia Tech team that was ranked 22nd at the time. In their last two games, the Lady Vols have trounced Rice and won 79-67 at No. 23 Miami to end the Hurricanes’ 41-game home winning streak.
Tennessee’s roster includes just two seniors and one junior, but the Lady Vols are getting big performances from its newcomers.
Freshman forward Bashaara Graves has collected at least 14 points in each of her four games while leading the Lady Vols in scoring (17.5) and ranking second on the team in rebounding (8.0). Freshman guard Andraya Carter, who has started all four games, shot 4-of-5 from 3-point range and scored 16 points against Miami.
That youth can result in some inconsistency. Tennessee allowed a 27-point, second-half lead to slip to six against Miami before putting the game away. But all these underclassmen also have brought plenty of energy during this three-game winning streak.
“They’re competitive,” Warlick said. “They are young. They’re going to make mistakes, but as long as we keep playing hard and playing with the mindset we have right now, I’m pleased with it. We make mental mistakes just because of our youth, but we’re making up (for it) a lot in hustle plays and just playing hard all the time.”
That mindset took effect immediately after the Chattanooga game.
“We learned an enormous amount from that game,” Burdick said. “I continue to say that was a blessing in disguise. It really was.”